Retro senior afro american blues man. Wearing striped suit with blue hat. Playing acoustic guitar. Smoking cigar.
Photo: ysbrandcosijn / Adobe Stock

12 Essential Contemporary Blues Artists

Blues is the foundation of much American music, but it’s often seen as a legacy genre. These 12 blues artists make the case for its continuing relevance and vitality.

Marquise Knox

Marquise Knox, from St. Louis, Missouri, was born to the blues. His grandmother taught him the guitar, and he played with an uncle who was an important influence on his life and career. He has shared stages with B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards and has appeared at many blues festivals and toured throughout Europe.

While in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he met Sam Lay, the drummer best known for his stints with Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield and as a member of Bob Dylan’s electric band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Impressed by Knox, Lay pushed to have him appear at Bluesmasters at the Crossroads, a prestigious showcase for blues musicians in Salina, Kansas. Marquise was a hit with the audience and with the older blues players who turned out to hear him.

His first album, Manchild (2009), was nominated for a Blues Music Award for Best New Artist Debut. Knox’s second album, Here I Am (2011), features three Muddy Waters covers (“I Can’t Be Satisfied”, “Two Trains Running”, and “Feel Like Going Home”) and nine of his compositions, including what has become his signature tune (and statement of purpose), “Can a Young Man Play the Blues?” His most recent album, Black and Blue (2017), is a live set recorded at Bowlful of Blues in Newton, Iowa.

Janiva Magness

Janiva Magness is a singer and songwriter from Detroit whose life story would seem to have prepared her to adopt a musical style as emotive as the blues: her parents committed suicide when she was in her early teens, and she grew up in a series of foster homes. Magness first heard blues from records in her father’s collection. An Otis Rush concert made her a devotee; the teenage Magness was thrilled by the Mississippi-born singer and guitarist known for his searing, emotionally intense performances.

Magness has recorded 15 albums, the first, More Than Live in 1991, followed by It Takes One to Know One (1997). After three independent releases, she was signed by the Canadian label Northern Blues Music, which issued Bury Him at the Crossroads (2004) and Do I Move You? (2006). In 2008, Magness signed with Alligator Records. The blues-oriented label put out the albums What Love Will Do, The Devil Is an Angel Too (2010), and Stronger for It (2012); the latter was the first since More Than Live to feature her compositions.

Magness left Alligator in 2014 to launch her label, Fathead, and its first release, Original, included seven songs she co-wrote. Love Wins Again (2016) became her most successful album, reaching the Top 10 on blues and Americana charts and earning Magness a Grammy nomination. But before that milestone, she had already racked up prestigious awards, from the Blues Foundation, which in 2009 named her the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year (she was only the second female artist, after Koko Taylor, to be so recognized) and seven Blues Music Awards. On Blue Again (2018), she brought her earthy and commanding voice to material by Etta James, Bo Diddley, Freddie King, Nina Simone, and Al Kooper.

Its follow-up, Love Is an Army (2018), combines southern soul reminiscent of the great Stax hits of the 1960s with Americana. Her latest, Change in the Weather (2019), comprises covers of 12 John Fogerty songs.

Caron “Sugaray” Rayford

Caron “Sugaray” Rayford from Smith County, Texas, specializes in soul-blues. The singer-songwriter began singing as a child in a church in nearby Tyler. Childhood poverty and his mother’s death from cancer marked his early years. Things improved when he moved in with his gospel-loving grandmother in San Diego, California. After stints with two California R&B and blues groups, he self-released his first solo album, Blind Alley, in 2010. The following year, he joined the Los Angeles-based blues band the Mannish Boys, singing lead vocals on their album, Double Dynamite.

Between 2013 and 2022, Rayford released five albums: Dangerous (2013), Southside (2015), The World That We Live In (2017), Somebody Save Me (2019), and In Too Deep (2022). Living Blues magazine praised his “old-school vocal approach” that “brings to mind such legends as Muddy Waters, Otis Redding, and Teddy Pendergrass”. Rayford is a physically imposing performer with a vivid stage personality. On “The Revelator”, from Somebody Save Me, the six-foot-five, 300-pound Rayford declares himself “a freak of nature”.  “I ain’t no honeybee,” he announces. “I’m an unknown creature / The like you’ve never seen.”

Rayford has taken home five Blues Music Awards, including B.B King Entertainer of the Year and Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year. Somebody Save Me was nominated for a Grammy as Best Contemporary Blues Album. His latest, In Too Deep, is a soul-blues session on which he augments his core instrumentation of guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums with a horn section and flute, flugelhorn, violin, and cello.

Adia Victoria

Adia Victoria, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist from Spartanburg, South Carolina currently based in Nashville, has created her own “gothic blues” style. Since 2014, she has released three EPs —Baby Blues (2017) including one of Robert Johnson’s best-known songs, “Me and the Devil”—and three albums: Beyond the Bloodhounds (2016), Silences (2019), and A Southern Gothic (2021). Rolling Stone called A Southern Gothic “stunning”, a “declarative and delicate work of roots reclamation, the latest compelling chapter in Victoria’s artistic project of expanding and re-centering the blues in a contemporary framework.”

As brands go, “gothic blues” is an apt one for the album’s sound and mood: “Magnolia Blues”, “You Was Born to Die”, and “Deep Water Blues” create a mysterious, haunted sonic world that entrances. Victoria has been outspoken about the neglect (and worse) of Black artists by Nashville and the Americana world. On her podcast “Call and Response”, she’s had conversations about the issue with musicians like Brandi Carlile and Rhiannon Giddens. For A Southern Gothic, Victoria enlisted Americana stars Margo Price and Jason Isbell as collaborators, and she has been an opening act on Isbell’s shows, with him and Price joining her during her set.  

Jontavious Willis

Jontavious Willis grew up singing gospel with his grandfather in their Baptist church in Greenville, Georgia. When he was 14, what church people call “the devil’s music” seduced him. He saw a video of Muddy Waters performing “Hoochie Coochie Man” and the blues claimed him. Willis learned country blues styles—Delta, Piedmont, Texas—and developed formidable chops as a fingerpicker, flatpicker, and slide player. He also taught himself harmonica and five-string banjo.

In 2015, Taj Mahal invited Willis to join him on stage, praising him afterward as “my wonderboy, the wunderkind”. After receiving Mahal’s blessing, he was invited to perform at festivals, and, in 2017, he released his first album, Blue Metamorphosis. In 2018, the Blues Foundation recognized it with a Best Self-Produced CD Award. Willis released his second album, Spectacular Class, in 2019, on the Kind of Blue Music label, with Taj Mahal as credited as executive producer and Keb’ Mo’ as producer. Consisting of ten tracks written by Willis, the album features his vocals and acoustic guitar, with Keb’ Mo’ on electric guitar. Spectacular Class was nominated for the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.

In a Living Blues interview with Corey Harris, Willis remarked that although “Delta blues and Chicago blues will always be the first two things when it comes to blues,” he had recently discovered blues by “people in my region”. “So, when I started finding all these Georgia players, I was like, ‘Whoa!’ These are some big cats like Tampa Red, and Ma Rainey and Blind Willie McTell, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.'”

“The Blues Is Dead?”, from Spectacular Class, expresses Willis’ feelings about the state of the blues today. “People been talkin’, and it made me scratch my head / I said people been talkin’, and it made me scratch my head / They been sayin’ over and over that the blues is dead / Well the blues ain’t goin’ nowhere, goin’ be here for a great long time.”